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Faster trains in Penn plans; Amtrak also exploring the idea of a hotel on station's upper levels


Amtrak is spending at least $10.5 million to prepare Pennsylvania Station for high-speed rail service and is exploring plans to turn part of the landmark terminal into a hotel.

Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, a city agency that monitors changes to the 1911 station at 1525 N. Charles St., approved plans for the high-speed rail-related improvements last month.

Amtrak, the nation's passenger railroad and owner of Penn Station, is working with a developer to explore constructing a moderately priced hotel, with 75 to 80 rooms, on the station's upper three levels, above the main concourse.

Construction of the $5 million to $6 million hotel project would begin this year and be complete in 12 to 18 months. Room rates would range from $80 to $100 a night.

"We're very enthusiastic about it," Chris Weeks, senior director of commercial development for Amtrak, said. "We think it will be a big plus for that community."

The bulk of station work, some of which will coincide with a $23 million replacement of the Charles Street-Penn Station bridge over Interstate 83 beginning this summer, involves improvements to the platform level where passengers board and leave trains, including reconstruction of one platform slab and the stairway and elevator leading to it, and restoration of the canopy.

It also includes alterations to the station, including a new information desk, refurbishing the ticket booth and new signs.

The work is designed to enhance the travel experience for the growing number of Amtrak passengers who board or leave trains at the station, planners say. More than 880,000 passengers left or boarded an Amtrak train in Baltimore in the year ending Sept. 30 -- up from 830,000 passengers the previous year, officials said.

"It's really to bring the platform area up to the level of the rest of the station" in the way it looks and functions, said Ellen Taylor, Amtrak's director of station program and planning for the Northeast corridor.

Most of the station was renovated in the 1970s and 1980s, but the platform level has peeling paint, cracked pavement and other signs of deterioration.

"The platform level is just as much a front door to the city as the rest of the station is" because that's what people see first when they get off the train, Taylor said. "This will allow it to shine."

In November, Amtrak will start introducing 20 trains to replace premium-fare Metroliners that travel from Washington to New York, and extend service from Washington to Boston.

The 304-passenger trains will go up to 150 mph and are expected to cut 2 1/2 hours off travel between Baltimore and Boston.

The travel time between Baltimore and New York will be shortened by 12 minutes, to two hours and eight minutes. Fares for the new service have not been set.

Penn Station is one of several along the Northeast corridor being renovated in preparation for the high-speed rail service. Funds are coming from $2.3 billion Congress approved in 1997, and Baltimore's station will receive more work than most, Taylor said.

The building, designed by Kenneth W. Murchison, was originally known as Union Station.

In a preservation commission meeting last month, Amtrak officials agreed to find a new location for a proposed 19-foot-tall "site marker pylon," which they wanted to place in the front plaza near the main entrance. Preservation panel members said the plaza has been reserved for artwork.

Dan Peter Kopple and Associates of Philadelphia is the lead architect for the repairs, and preliminary work has begun. Taylor said most of the work will be under way by spring and complete by November. Much of it will be done at night so it won't interfere with train schedules, she said.

Amtrak is working with an unnamed development team, the sole respondent to last year's advertisement for proposals from developers interested in leasing space in the station and building the hotel rooms.

Weeks said the rooms would occupy upper levels that are empty or used for temporary offices or storage. The hotel would create a reception area and lobby at the main concourse level, he said.

Amtrak has hired an architect, Einhorn, Yaffee and Prescott of Washington, to determine the best way to fit the hotel into the station without disrupting other activities or marring architectural features.

Amtrak officials will decide in the next four months whether to move ahead with the hotel project, based on feasibility studies and negotiations with the development team. Weeks said he believes there is a strong chance the project will take place.

"We're seeing a significant increase in ridership," he said. "We don't have any doubt that there's a significant need for a hotel."

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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